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“We need to think about what a postcolonial form of hope would look like, rather than take for granted the hope that has been defined by the modernist project, a genre of hope that has been premised all along on the subjugation of people of color and the theft of their wealth, resources, wellbeing and lives.”
“A postcolonial approach to hope would recognize that the horizon for hope, its temporalities and its scale of possibilities, is a political question.”
I first want to thank Asher Ghertner, Mona Atia, Sara Fregonese, and Federico Pérez for participating in this forum for my book. I am grateful for their generous engagement with the text, their astute and productive comments, and for making me think about my book and work in new ways. I am also thankful for Emma Shaw Crane for always championing my work and for investing significant time and energy in organizing an Author Meets Critic session at the American Association of Geographers, from which the idea for this book forum emerged. My gratitude also goes to the editorial board at Society and Space, especially Charmaine Chua and Brian Jordan Jefferson, for featuring this book forum. I will take this opportunity to reflect on a common theme raised by the reviewers: the issue of hope in contested cities.
The question of hope has occupied me for a long time. As someone who wrote a book entitled For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers (2018), which details how religious-political organizations use planning as a tool of conflict as much as that of peace in the sectarian-contested city of Beirut, Lebanon, I have often been asked: where can we locate hope in such spaces of socio-spatial injustices? I often pause at that question, absorbing the pressure folded into it: I feel the burden of providing a happy ending to the dark side of planning that I have observed. I share with my readers and listeners the struggles over the production of the everyday geographies of Beirut’s peripheries-turned-frontiers and the ways people make life where war is always looming. But with that question, I feel the responsibility to imagine a future that is different—and one that is better— from the present and the past that all the people whom I encountered during my field research, as well as my family in Lebanon, have endured and survived. As someone trained in the field of urban planning, where we are told that we always have to act to make the world a better place, I find the question even more daunting.
Some answers to those questions of hope appear satisfactory to some of my interlocuters: my book finds that sectarianism changes over time, that it is negotiated and spatially produced through everyday practices and that therefore is not set in stone. This provides some hope that Beirut’s residents are not doomed to live with the oppression of sectarianism forever. The dividing lines separating the Shiite from the Druze families in Sahra Choueifat, for example, are not walls, but instead are everyday spaces that people negotiate, reconfigure, and enact on a daily basis. Despite the anticipated bleak futures, there are social movements working relentlessly to craft new spaces for social engagement and knowledge circulation in Lebanon, offering platforms for organizing toward a collective future horizon, and possibilities for the emergence of public interests that shake away the inevitability of new wars (like what the city witnessed with the emergence of Beirut Madinati as a serious and hopeful contender for municipal elections in 2016).
Still, I often wonder, in the split second before answering that critical question yet again: what exactly is the hope that people are looking for?” Is it a hope for post-war? Post-violence? Post-sectarianism? A future that breaks with the present and the past? A future in which people who live in Beirut’s peripheries can have a “better life”—but in comparison to whom, where, and what?
Hope was abundant in Beirut on October 17, 2019 when people took to the streets demanding an end to corruption and the dismantling of a predator sectarian system. For the next several months, thousands of Lebanese people filled streets, squares and highways daily. Raising fists together, chanting popular songs, and lighting candles, thousands of bodies swayed in unity, pledging to “shed their sect” and demand accountability. Scenes of people filling open spaces, debate circles taking over parking lots, revolutionary art and graffiti painted on security walls, and food carts selling cheap food in the most posh area of Beirut, the future felt hopeful and inclusive—for a moment. Yet as someone who spent 15 years of their life researching and documenting how the anticipated wars yet to come have shaped urban space and contributed to the sectarian-segregated geographies of Beirut, I was conflicted in my hope.
I really wanted the continuously expected futures of war that have governed people’s everyday lives since the 1970s to end there and then — I wanted for that bleak future to die in the streets under people’s marching feet, and for a new future beyond sectarian violence to emerge from those same streets.
But the part of me that has learned how materially these oppressive systems of othering have been entrenched in space over time, continuously fed by former war militias turned religious-political organizations, was reluctant to hope. These public-private hybrid actors have used all the tools available to remain in power: they hold a grip over the government and its resources, while also dominating communal and public spheres through a myriad of social, political, and paramilitary institutions — almost sealing off the possibility of politics outside their grip. Chanting with thousands, “down with the sectarian regime,” I was simultaneously wondering about how to open that political possibility in practice.
As we marched and chanted, and as I documented that outstanding moment, focusing on how protestors repurposed open spaces and made and remade hope every day in the streets and highways, I kept trying to envision this hopeful future. I wondered, where and how do we go from here to dismantle structures of oppression that perpetuate dispossession and violence? What kind of work needs to be done? Whose narrative of hope should be championed? And for an urban scholar like myself, the question is: how do we think of hope geographically? Where do we locate hope?
These questions are not particular to Beirut. As I argue in the book, they arise in various contexts of conflict and protest, as we are at a global moment in which the imagined future of most places in the world — in both the Global North and South — is one of conflict and contestation characterized by ecological crises, anticipated terror attacks, and the unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants, and more recently, a global pandemic that disproportionally ravages disenfranchised communities.
The tension between a present of despair and a future of hope came rushing back as I participated in protests that have been raging in reaction to the brutal killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota. The pain of the deaths of black and brown people via police brutality were only compounded by watching black and brown people dying in U.S. cities in exponential numbers due of disinvestment in the healthcare and wellness in minority areas. On June 6, 2020, as I joined the Black Lives Matter protests in New York, while marching along Central Park West towards Washington Square Park chanting “no justice, no peace” and “don’t shoot,” I experienced the same exhilarating feelings I had during my participation in the October 17, 2019 uprising in Lebanon. My ebullient (perhaps irrational) sense of hope that things would change one day returned again, intertwined with my feelings of an immense sense of despair and anger about the kind of unjust society we have created, whether we are speaking of the racial injustice and cruelty towards black people in the US or the sectarian violence that ebbs and flows in Lebanon, uprooting people’s lives again and again —and the likelihood we could ever change it.
That night, on June 6, when I arrived home after marching, a stream of WhatsApp videos started downloading on my phone, showing people firing on each other in Beirut. This was a series of fresh scenes of violence, during what has become a return to sectarian fighting—for a day. In this moment, the two cities I call home—Beirut and New York—once again came together in a complex twist of hope and despair. That evening I felt stuck between these two far away spaces—with their different histories, presents, and forms of liberation—cities that felt intimately connected in their struggles. My feelings oscillated between tremendous anger and an immense sense of hope, between the futility of resistance, now that the October 17 uprising in Lebanon has waned, partly crushed by a depleting economic crisis, and the power of resistance as people took knee and raised fists demanding justice on the streets of New York earlier that day.
As I searched to critically come to grips with different people’s quests and requests for scenarios of hope, for that happy ending, I have learned several things about hope: first, the telos of imagining a different future that is not rooted in the present and its pasts assumes that you can break with that history. That, I think, is a misguided form of hope. Systems of oppression cannot be “hoped away” or “chanted away.” They need to be dismantled. So: how do we bring temporalities and materialities of hope to match the gravity of the temporalities and materialities of oppression? Second, there is no hope without despair, and it not useful to separate the two categories. One hopes for something because their conditions are unsatisfactory. Therefore, it has been more productive for me to think of the intertwinement of hope and despair, and the dialectical relationship that shapes these two dispositions to life, and the material implications of inhabiting one disposition or the other, or both simultaneously.
Third, drawing from the literature on Black Nihilism and Afro-pessimism, hope is implicated with modernity and intertwined with the fictions of teleological time and linear progress. Calvin L. Warren (2015) argues that, as a political project, hope is pointless for Black lives. Black people have been promised and sold hope for a better future for a long time now (only if they vote, work harder, or dress differently, and so on). However, decades and centuries of marginalization and exploitation have shown that what hope ends up doing is fatiguing Black bodies, keeping them stuck in place, as they work towards a hope that is impossible to attain (Warren 2015). “The utopian vision of a ‘not-yet-social order’ that purges anti-blackness from its core provides a promise without relief—its only answer to the immediacy of Black suffering is to keep struggling” (Warren 2015, p. 233). That is because modernity and its celebrated notions of hope and progress is premised on the exploitation, exclusion, or the death of Black and brown people. While that hopeful future of modernity seems to be promised to everyone, in reality, that future only applies to the most powerful (mainly white European men), and that Eurocentric white future is intrinsically built on the exploitation of the racialized Other (through colonialization, slavery, wage theft, and/or neocolonialism). As a result, most brown and Black people are stuck in a cyclical racialized time, unable to attain the teleological linear progress of future that has been imagined, imposed, and made universal.
In my book on Beirut, I show the breakdown of other sets of fictitious categories that usually define “the good life” (Berlant 2011) of modernity such as peace, construction, and home; equally defined by the absence of their opposites like war, destruction, and displacement. For example, the critical excavation of ruins in Hayy Madi-Mar Michael, detailed in the book, shows the contradictions and crises that lie in the constructed binaries between war and peace, future and past, construction and destruction, home and displacement, and segregation and co-existence. In fact, what is war and what is not war (or peace) is often blurred. Given such a context in contested geographies, how then do we define hope? When war and peace are not two clear distinct categories: what is hope?
And then there is the question of spatiality: where do we locate hope within the collapse of the distinction between everyday life and militarized spaces? I am referring in the case of Beirut to how religious-political organizations, in addition to ruling the real estate and housing markets, vie to control strategic hilltops and maintain access through residential zones in expectations of future wars. In one moment, the window of an apartment is an ordinary window, used to hang laundry and flower pots, and chat with the neighbors. In future wars, it could become a sniper’s location. The result is a militarization of everyday life. After reading my book, interlocutors in the Global North sometimes share that, while they sympathize with all the residents populating my book (my family included), they can never identify with Beirut because they have lived their lives without war, they have always had peace. However, the latest killing of unarmed Black people that spurred the Black Lives Matter protests across US cities and the globe show that my interlocutors’ spaces are not foreign to socio-economic dispossession, militarization, and cyclical systematic violence. In the geographies of white supremacy, “peace” exists for some while the rest endure war, policing, jailing and death, whether that other is a Black man in Minneapolis, a child in Baghdad, or a worker in Kabul. In these moments of fractures, the militarized borderlines are automatically drawn inside our cities, delineating who is worthy of life and police protection, and who can be sacrificed by police in the name of public order—or to COVID-19 in the name of public health.
Within such a context, I suggest that we need to think about what a postcolonial form of hope would look like, rather than take for granted the hope that has been defined by the project of modernity, a genre of hope that has been premised all along on the subjugation of people of color and the theft of their wealth, resources, wellbeing and lives. I am not saying that the geographies of sectarianism in Lebanon and that of racism in the United States are comparable. The book highlights the fluidity and malleability of sectarianism, how it is made, unmade, and remade on a daily basis, which does not hold true for the systematic racism in the United States, racism that is rooted in a history of slavery. What I am arguing, however, is that thinking these two geographies relationally exposes the need to re-conceptualize hope outside of its modernist teleological dimension to apprehend the complexities of our present. To that end, we first need to acknowledge that hope by itself is not a progressive category. One’s hope can inflict pain on others, one’s hope can be another’s destruction. Additionally, hope can be oppressive in forcing people to conform in the present to access a promised hope that is yet to come. Hope is also often ambiguous. As Ayse Parla argues, “hope has the potential to enable or to disable, to inspire or to obscure, depending on the context, its object, and its justifications” (Parla 2019, p. 24).
In addition, a postcolonial approach to hope would recognize that the horizon for hope, its temporalities and its scale of possibilities, is a political question. Who can hope and what can they hope for is shaped by one’s past and present as well their economy of place in the social, economic and political order. Within such a framework of differentiation, defining a collective project for hope requires what Michael Taussig calls a “calculus for hope” (Zournazi 2003, p. 62). As a person who grew up in war, I often get asked: so how was life under war? Well, people “lived” their lives under war, and worked during war to “improve” their lives. At times, they laughed, got married, built houses, did business; they were shelled, bombed, and displaced at other times. Hope co-existed with war, but what you could hope for was and had been conditioned by the possibilities that were delimited by one’s material existence.
It is more productive, therefore, to think of the materiality of hope. How do we conceptualize hope as a materialist praxis, rather than a metaphysical aspiration that is not rooted in the materiality of everyday life? We need to think of hope as a practice in order to create fractures in structures of oppression that would enable alternative materialities and horizons to emerge or flourish, that are also rooted in the present and pasts. I think of it as shaking the structure of a house until it starts disintegrating, allowing for new forms of life to emerge from the existing debris. What could emerge is a fragmented terrain, far away from the universal totalizing idea of hope, or what Taussig may call “islands of hope” (Zournazi 2003, p. 62). But perhaps, these “islands of hope” could be sewed together through acts of solidarity, collective mobilization, and mass movements that may enable us to keep shaking the structure of the house—by congregating in open space, taking over streets, repurposing public spaces, setting up neighborhood mutual aid groups, and protesting—practices that would enable our horizon to widen and for different political possibilities to emerge from that debris.
Back to the question about hope in Beirut’s peripheries: if that question is asking about how people can “free themselves” from sectarianism, its temporalities and geographies, it is important to recognize that such a future is not possible without thinking of the many scales through which these systems of oppression have developed over time at the intersection of colonialism, neoliberalism, and militarization. Towards the end of his treatise in Spaces of Hope, David Harvey states that “[o]ur social and physical world can and must be made, re-made, and, if that goes awry, re-made again” (Harvey 2008, p. 281), and that “where to begin and what is to be done are the key questions.” These indeed remain key questions. He suggests earlier in the book that this could done by considering possibilities at a “variety of spatiotemporal scales” (Harvey 2008, p. 234). In the case of Beirut, where the city’s peripheries have been transformed not only into frontiers but also centers and nodes in transnational circulations of finance, militarization, and political sectarianism, that would require continuous urban struggles that intersect with a global push towards decolonizing international relations, global demilitarization, and curtailing capitalist exploitation.
The hope for liberation that people are looking for, then, might not lie only in dismantling the sectarian demarcation in Beirut’s peripheral neighborhoods but only in a total demolition of racial capitalism and the international military-industrial order. This would entail a global remaking that stitches the “islands of hope” produced by urban struggles in Beirut with those islands of hope opening up in American cities, Paris’s banlieues, Johannesburg’s Soweto(s), and elsewhere. Perhaps then we can have a working framework for decolonizing hope and appropriating its materialities and temporalities as tools for emancipation and liberation.
The horrific explosion that took place in Beirut’s port on August 4th, reshuffled the horizons of despair and hope in the city once again. While many Lebanese have often expected destruction and displacement to come from anticipated wars, mass destruction came this time as a result of neglect by a corrupted and dysfunctional Lebanese government that left 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate carelessly housed at the Beirut port. A fire that broke into one of the port’s warehouses (for reasons still unknown), spread to the ammonium nitrate causing a blast, one of the strongest non-nuclear blasts registered worldwide. The blast killed more than 200 people (and counting), while injuring 6,000 and displacing around 300,000 people, with an estimated material damage of 10-15 billion dollars.
In the wake of such a disaster, whatever hope from the October 17 revolution was shattered. In such a bleak moment of loss and destruction, however, signs of the networks and infrastructures of hope that people built during the revolution have emerged from the debris and have been quick to mobilize to help victims of the explosion. WhatsApp groups that were used to plan protests and mobilize resources during the uprising have been reactivated for the purpose of post-explosion relief, revolutions tents in public spaces have been set up again to allow volunteers to congregate, discuss and disperse support. Within a few hours, thousands of people, from across Lebanon, took their brooms to the streets to clean up and help in rebuilding, and mass networks channeled material support to the affected areas. Even at the darkest times, those infrastructures of hope-making towards social justice, that the people in Lebanon have built during their recent uprising remain alive to construct future hopes to come.
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Bou Akar H (2018) For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers. 1 edition. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Harvey D (2000) Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parla A (2019) Precarious Hope: Migration and the Limits of Belonging in Turkey. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Warren CL (2015) Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope. CR: The New Centennial Review 15(1). Michigan State University Press: 215–248.
Zournazi M (2003) Hope: New Philosophies for Change. Psychology Press.